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Alex Steffen, 23 Dec 03

This Christmas, while most of us are fiddling with new toys and trying on new sweaters, over 50,000 people around the Western Hemisphere will be grabbing coats and binoculars and trudging out to look for birds. This Christmas Bird Count has been going on for 104 years now, but this year is something altogether different.

Bird-watching (or "birding") is one of the most popular hobbies in North America. Millions of people love to spend their free time hiking through mountains, woods and swamps, ears perked and eyes peeled for any sign of a rare bird.

At the same time, migratory birds around the world are in deep trouble, with plummeting populations and, scientists say, insufficient existing research to know exactly how best to help them. One of the things most needed is accurate counts of where migrating birds are when, and in what numbers. Ideally, this would involve massive and on-going counts done by numerous trained observers in the field.

In the past, this kind of research was simply too expensive to consider, and while amateur efforts like the Christmas Bird Count helped, coordination was difficult and processing the data was an extremely daunting task. But in the past few years, researchers, birders and environmentalists had a group "Aha!" - they realized that there are already millions of trained observers in the field, people who care passionately about the welfare of birds, and, most importantly, that the technological tools now exist to meaningfully connect them.

And thus was hatched eBird. Thousands and thousands of individual birders all across the continent have signed up, contributing their on-going sightings and field data to a collaborative database on bird populations and behavior. In exchange, birders who use eBird (and the various other like-minded networks which are a part of this movement) get online records of the birds they've seen (through MyEBird), planning info for birding trips, friendships with other birders and a sense that they're not just watching their feathered friends, they're helping to save them.

Collaborative technologies often seem abstract, and the possibilities they create for taking huge and neccessary projects and breaking them into small, even pleasant tasks distributed over a very large number of people are often difficult to explain. But I'm betting that for the folks headed out on Thursday, collaboration will be neither abstract nor difficult to grasp... just a little chilly.

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